It's a frosty morning in Seattle, and the University of Washington's Don James, in his 17th year as the Husky coach, is up in his purple coaching tower—alone, imperial, impassive—peering down on his subjects at practice. Up in a tower is just where James should be. After all, his players consider him unapproachable. Says quarterback Billy Joe Hobert, "He's like the god of football. We're all afraid of him." Curt Marsh, a former Husky offensive lineman and the No. 1 pick of the Los Angeles Raiders in the 1981 NFL draft, agrees: "He says he has an open-door policy, but you don't feel much like you should walk through it."
James is serious, stern, authoritarian. Adhere exactly to the schedule, write everything down, evaluate, calculate, make no exceptions, do it my way or the highway. He is depressingly well organized and has said a few thousand times, "A tidy ship is a happy ship."
You do not go up to James, slap him on the back, say, "Hi, pal," and engage in chitchat about fishing in Puget Sound. At 59, he looks like a benign grandfather but acts around his football team like a dictator. Says offensive coordinator Keith Gilbertson, "Everybody definitely knows who's in charge."
And the reason James is so successful is that no other coach has demonstrated the willingness to change every one of his theories, plans and schemes as James has. And that flies in the face of everything James seems to be. When unmasked, one of football's most intransigent coaches is actually the ultimate flexible man.
For example, only three years ago, he scrapped his two-back, hand-off-until-you're-blue-in-the-face system to make room for the open-field excitement—and uncertainty—of a flashy one-back alignment with its many receivers. Furthermore, about two years ago, he threw out his safe and conventional bend-but-don't-break defense for the high risk—and uncertainty—of an attacking style that sometimes places as many as 10 players at or very near the line of scrimmage.
Husky center Ed Cunningham says, "We thought he was a never-change, conservative coach. We were wrong."
If the players had not been so wrong and James had not been so right, there would be little chance that the Huskies would be 11-0 and playing in the Rose Bowl on New Years Day against Michigan, with a good chance of winning their first national championship. The metamorphosis of James should be required study for four groups of people: young coaches, midcareer coaches, old coaches and guys who want to coach. Oh, and for every other person who is stubbornly resistant to change.
What makes the changes even more stunning is that James began making them in the late 1980s, while Washington was in the midst of winning more games in the decade (84) than any other team in the Pac-10; he started making them when he had already taken the Huskies to three Rose Bowls (two more soon followed); he started making them soon after his teams had twice made it to No. 1 during the season ('82 and '84) and twice more ('83 and '85) had been almost everyone's preseason pick to win the national champions. That's a lot of fixing for something that wasn't real broke. James shrugs. "I did it because I could see what we were doing just wasn't going to work anymore," he says.
Here is how James, often cited by his peers as the best coach in the land ("I'm kind of embarrassed by that," he says), reinvented himself and his team. In 1988 the Huskies were a horrible—by Husky standards—6-5, which ended their consecutive bowl-appearance streak at nine. Many coaches would have explained the season away by pointing out that five of the losses were by a total of 15 points, and two were by a single point. James did not. Instead he told his assistants, "We were last in the league in defense against the run. We are not nearly as fast as we should be, and we can't beat big teams the way we are." So, as his coaches hit the recruiting trail, James was shouting after them: "Don't bring in a guy who can't run. And if you can't verify his speed, go to the next high school." Too many Husky players who were 4.5 in high school somehow became 4.8 when they got to Seattle. Big and slow was suddenly out; fast and strong was in.
After the '88 season James gathered his team, admitted to mistakes he thought he had made, then asked the players to write down ways in which they could improve. Each player was challenged to establish new personal records in speed and strength. Two 30-minute speed drills a week were added to the off-season regimen. In a short period of time, 80% of the team had become faster and stronger.